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My mother’s kitchen

Food for Thought

Kitchens, as our grandmothers knew them, have virtually disappeared from houses under 50 years old. For 12 years, we lived in a nice old house in Iowa City’s Goosetown, a house that was similar to the house I grew up in. Both had been built in the early years of the 20th century and featured kitchens that were definitely separate from the rest of the house.
The Iowa City kitchen had once had a swinging door connecting it to the dining room. It also had an attached pantry with cupboards that reached to the ceiling, and a work counter with more cabinets below. There were no cupboards in the kitchen, only a small closet. An enclosed porch (once known as a summer kitchen) led to the back yard, another door opened onto the basement stairs, and one wall featured two windows at a height that invited a work table or small dinette set for eating in the kitchen when it was too inconvenient to carry dishes and food back and forth to the dining room.
It was a good-sized room, probably 12 by 16 feet, but with all those doors and windows there was little wall space for cabinets or built-ins of any kind. A large sink in a metal cabinet with under-counter drawers stood against one wall between the pantry and back porch. The stove was opposite on the wall between the closet and basement doors. The only place a refrigerator would fit was in the corner between the closet and the dining room door. Preparing a meal in that kitchen was the equivalent of a 50-mile hike.
The house I grew up in had a similar kitchen, except without so many doors. It was about the same size, but instead of a swinging door to the dining room, it led to a tiny room with a window and four doorways. Two of the doors opened to the basement stairs and the front hall. The other doorways led to the kitchen and dining room and had, apparently, never had doors as such. This kitchen, also, had two large windows looking out to the lawn and Mother’s flower gardens, and we ate most of our meals at a large Formica table set in front of the windows.
When we had company or a holiday meal, we ate in the dining room. There was a ceiling-high built-in cupboard on one wall of the kitchen and this was backed by a similar one in the dining room. A large pass-through made it possible to shuttle food and dishes between the two rooms. Mother had been a little more fortunate than I was, as the working part of her kitchen was concentrated at the end of the room opposite the windows. It was almost, but not quite, like today’s popular family room-kitchen arrangement but lacking a TV set and comfortable chairs. And it was the center of most of our daily activities.
Laundry was sorted in the kitchen, both before and after it was washed. The washing machine lived on the back porch and the wet clothes were taken out to the backyard clotheslines to dry. When dry, the clothes were carried back into the kitchen and dumped on the table for the sorting out of things to be dampened for ironing the next day, for the folding of underwear, and the rolling of socks into pairs.
The next day, the ironing board would be set up in the kitchen and Mother would spend a good deal of the day ironing our school dresses, Dad’s work clothes, sheets and pillow cases until we got home from school and took over the task while she started supper.
Homework was most often spread out on the kitchen table after the supper dishes had been washed and put away. Dad was often called on to explain a new algebra problem or to help us look up something in the encyclopedia. If there was no schoolwork, we might play cards or a board game at the table while Mother made popcorn, or in summer, maybe root beer floats before we went to bed.
On weekends, especially when the weather kept us indoors, we whiled away boring afternoons with one of Mother’s many craft projects. She always seemed to have a new idea for something to keep us busy. Where she got those ideas, I never really knew, but they were often messy and difficult enough to keep us engaged for long periods of time. I remember making plaster of Paris wall plaques with pictures cut from magazines or catalogs. One winter, we learned to make crepe paper roses, and then extended the idea to trying to make our own versions of iris, daffodils, and other recognizable flower shapes.
One of my favorite memories is of sharing Dad’s usual bedtime snack, saltine crackers and a glass of ice cold milk, while we played cribbage or gin rummy– at the kitchen table, of course.